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Reading Meters

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An idea to help the homeless that's seen limited success in San Francisco, Nashville, Denver and other cities may be coming soon to a street corner near you: homeless meters. And some homeless advocates are wondering if the meters will help or merely chase panhandlers off the street.

Repurposed parking meters would collect change -- change that might otherwise be destined for a panhandler's hand -- and distribute it among city agencies dedicated to helping the homeless. The idea is to harness the immediate impulse to help, but to be sure that a generous soul's money doesn't go to, say, drugs or alcohol.

"People would be able to give to something where they know where it's going, as opposed to panhandlers," says Mac McMahon, director of homeless assistance programs for Community Human Services. 

McMahon stresses that the meters are not on the immediate horizon, and are just an idea being considered by a committee made up of representatives from groups like the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, UPMC's Western Psychiatric Institute and the county Department of Human Services. It's not clear where the meters, or any money collected in them, would go just yet.

Meters in other cites haven't raised much money -- $5,000 in Baltimore in a year, $10,000 in Portland over a few years, according to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle.  In San Francisco, homeless advocates have derided as political posturing -- and attempts to shoo panhandlers from city centers. 

"We are not trying to discourage panhandling per se," says McMahon, "but to have a way to tell people, if they want to give, if they feel an agency is a better connection, they have a better opportunity."

But is this just another campaign meant to remove panhandlers from Downtown? The PDP has undertaken homeless initiatives in the past, including a leafleting campaign urging citizens not to give money directly to panhandlers, but rather to service agencies. The project came under fire because the leaflets were handed out by paid PDP "ambassadors" who were standing right beside panhandlers [see "Panhandling Battle ... Unsubtle Diplomacy," City Paper, Aug. 17, 2006].

Additionally, Pittsburgh City Council in 2005 passed a law against so-called "aggressive panhandling." The ordinance was initially very strict and even prohibited panhandlers from asking for money. The final restrictions included no-panhandling zones around areas like ATMs, outdoor dining establishments and even churches.

James Withers of Operation Safety Net, an on-the-ground homeless medical assistance program, expresses some worries about the parking-meter program. 

"The impulse [to give] comes from a human contact," he says. "It's important not to dehumanize each other. I don't think meters are very good panhandlers -- they won't be as good as the guys."

Withers says he can certainly see the noble intention in providing people a way to give money in a manner that seems responsible, and commends that as a goal. He's just not sure it will work -- whether people toss a quarter in the meter or a homeless person's cup. "That person's not going to get a job or get successful from the panhandling scene," he says. "That [money] isn't going to do much."

Traveling in Atlanta last week, Withers says, he encountered homeless meters for the first time. He says he was puzzled by what they were at first, and says homeless outreach workers in that city told him they generated very little cash.

In terms of the meters making panhandlers leave a given area, says Withers, it's akin to thinking about animal nuisances: "If you think of people like pigeons, if you feed them, they'll come." And if you feed the meter instead, perhaps they'll go away.

"We're certainly not telling people they can't give to panhandlers. I'm not discouraging that," says McMahon. "You can't move the meters around next to a person who's panhandling."

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